The concept of Janet Hamill’s short story collection, Tales from the Eternal Café, centers on tales derived from the café as a social matrix to society. Within Hamill’s collection, the reader is transported through time and around the world in no particular order to encounter characters of some fame, or implied fame, but always seemingly viewed from afar.
Hamill’s stories are set at cafés in famous cities. There is the Prince of Wales in Brussels, Café Ramella in Feltre, Café Limbo on the Via Vento and Caffé Greco near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The cafés with their unique names and exotic locales continue through other stories set around the world. The stories are set throughout time in no particular order from nineteenth century Belgium to 1950s northern Italy to medieval France to contemporary Rome.
The stories also seem centered on famous characters such as Baudelaire, or characters of suggested fame like the director in “Espresso Cinecitta” or the archaeologist in “Two Women and a White Umbrella” or the Romantic-era painter in “Ursula and the Sublime”. These central characters are introduced as though the reader should already know about them, which comes off as standoffish. In Tales From the Eternal Café, Janet Hamill does exhibit skill with words and language. Her characters are fully formed, but disengaged. There seemed to be more character in the cafés themselves than in the human characters of the stories.
I am new to Janet Hamill’s writing, so I did not know what to expect. Knowing Hamill is a poet, I had hopes for these stories. I was also intrigued with the idea of stories from cafés. However, I was unfortunately disappointed in the wordiness of the stories. I was left an outsider looking in to each story. Throughout, I was kept at a distance. This sensation of remoteness could be due to the narrating character being at a distance from the central activity of the stories. The narrators seemed to be viewing the story but were not the protagonist of the stories (they were ancillary like Somerset Maugham as narrator in The Razor’s Edge, just not as engaging).
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Three Rooms Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.